A tiny, nutritious grain, fonio, has been prized across West Africa for more than 5,000 years, but only lately has the western world gotten the nutty taste of it, thanks to Yolélé, a company that launched in 2017. Celebrating African ingredients and traditions, Yolélé translates to “let the good times roll” from Fulani, a nomadic group dispersed across West and Central Africa. A chance encounter in Brooklyn got the party started.
Philip Teverow, 59, a food industry veteran, was strolling around the Clinton Hill neighborhood 10 years ago and happened upon a block party where Pierre Thiam, 55, a renowned African-born chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, was cooking a whole lamb. They struck up a conversation and continued to bump into each other at New York City food events.
Thiam appeared in a magazine travelogue, leading other chefs to West Africa in an effort to bring the culture to a wider audience and create economic opportunities for the farmers there. He was especially trying to promote fonio (pronounced phone-yo), an ancient, gluten-free grain that grows in poor soil.
Teverow read the story covering the trip and reached out to Thiam, telling him, “This is what I do.”
Teverow had worked at Dean & DeLuca for 14 years, running the herbs and spice department and as director of product development. He helped to bring heirloom beans back into cultivation, buying them in bulk and repackaging them. Quinoa proved to be another major find.
“I’d been looking for a way to bring more meaning into my working life,” Teverow says. Realizing fonio’s potential could be it.
The seeds are easy to grow but hard to turn into food, about the same size and color as sand. The manual process to separate husk from grain is labor-intensive, often causing breakage and waste. Yolélé currently buys it from existing, unscalable processors in West Africa, but a super-efficient mill they’re building in Mali will open in 2022 and increase capacity.
Yolélé products include several varieties of Fonio Pilaf, flavored with Dakar curry and currants, and Afro-Funk with dawadawa (fermented seeds from the African locust bean tree). They cook in five minutes, producing a light, fluffy texture.
Thiam came up with the recipes. Ironically, he had no intention of becoming a chef.
“I come from a culture where women are in the kitchen,” he says. He studied physics and chemistry at Dakar University, and then his parents gave him money to pursue his education in Ohio. In 1989, he stopped first in New York to visit a Senegalese friend who was living in a derelict hotel near Times Square. All of his money was stolen. He had a return ticket but was too embarrassed to go home. A friend got him a job as a busboy at a French restaurant in the West Village.
“It was a shocking experience,” Thiam recalls. “I’d never seen men in the kitchen.” He took extra shifts as a dishwasher and avidly watched the chefs at work. They recognized his newfound passion and taught him knife and cooking skills, which led to several jobs at high-end restaurants where he sometimes got to experiment with African dishes.
If not for the robbery, Thiam likely would have become an engineer. And fonio might not have ever found a route out of Africa.
— 2010 Pierre Thiam and Phil Teverow meet at an African street fair organized by Thiam in Brooklyn
— 2014 Teverow reads an article in which Thiam talks about his vision for traditional smallholder ingredients from West Africa, including fonio; reaches out to discuss collaboration
— 2015 The two work on a business plan
— 2016 They go to West Africa to explore the supply chain for fonio and other traditional ingredients; they pitch the idea to Whole Foods Market
— 2017 They form Yolélé with Whole Foods as their first customer; swiftly add Thrive Market, launch on Amazon, and sell to a couple of forward-thinking independent grocers in Brooklyn; Thiam delivers TED talk on fonio’s transformative potential, gaining over a million views
— 2018 Team grows to three; expands retail distribution to around 70 stores; place fonio on over 100 restaurant menus
— 2019 Store count grows to 200; foodservice locations to 300; execute a license agreement with Woodland Foods; establish relationship with agri-processor in Mali to build joint venture fonio processing facility; run fonio row-cropping trial in Mali; Thiam publishes The Fonio Cookbook
— 2020 Team grows to five; re-brands; achieves national distribution at Whole Foods Market; store count grows to 1,000; launches Fonio Pilaf mixes at eight distributor locations; e-commerce website launches; contract to grow hundreds of tons of fonio with Malian smallholders; develop Fonio Chips; add Fonio Flour; line up West African suppliers for additional traditional ingredients
Julie Besonen writes for The New York Times and is a restaurant columnist for nycgo.com.